Review of Recursion by Blake Crouch

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Since I hear a lot about the Goodreads Choice Awards, where books win with vote totals in the 40-60K range, I promised to look at the winners from last year. Because these are popular books, it took a while to wait through the queue at the library, but finally, here they are:

Blake Couch’s novel won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Science Fiction book with 41,261 votes. Crouch is a New York Times Bestselling author and has several other books available, starting from about 2010. The winning novel was published by Crown in June of 2019, and runs 324 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Barry Sutton is a police detective in New York City. He and his ex, Julia, lost their daughter Meghan in a car accident when she was 16. When a woman jumps from a highrise, Barry begins trying to investigate False Memory Syndrome, an illness where people think they’ve lived another life. He interviews sufferers and finally blunders into the answer. Helena Smith, a brilliant researcher, has invented a way to send people back into memory; however, use of her method resets the timeline for everyone. Although Helena tries to keep her discovery secret, it becomes a target for everyone from commercial interests, to the CIA, to foreign governments. The schematics are finally published on Wikileaks, and reality starts to crumble. Is there any way Barry and Helena can stop spread of the technology and stabilize reality again?

On the positive side, this is a story about 1) the dangers of technology and 2) a possible do-over for your life, a way to correct all those mistakes that you wish you’d never made, to save your children from harm, or to connect in the kind of relationships that will last. Couch spends some time on the relationships, where the characters try to make things better for each other, which is probably what readers like about it. However, the book is mainly about the damage to reality the resets do, as they shift the characters into different timelines. False Memory Syndrome eventually gives way to the apocalypse, complete with horrific details.

On the not so positive side, there’s a giant hole in the science, and I somehow didn’t really believe in the characters or the settings. Helena’s research produces a device called a “chair” that will record a memory and reinject it later. (Note: This isn’t SF. It’s already accomplished in the real world.) Slade, the man who provides her funding, produces a sensory deprivation chamber and an ugly procedure for killing people inside it and then injecting the recorded memory, which causes a branch in reality so the dead person wakes at the memory point in a different timeline. This isn’t an accident; it works reliably all the time. Other chairs and chambers built from the same schematics also work reliably. Couch discusses a jumble of theory about arrows of time and tiny wormholes, but none of this explains why the equipment works. Next, the characters feel like cardboard cutouts that Couch moves through the story. Sutton is described as a police detective, but he doesn’t think like a detective, act like a detective or work on police business in NYC. In some timelines, he shows amazing flexibility in picking up a second career as a scientist. Helena is described as a brilliant researcher, but she doesn’t act the part, either. After umpteen resets where she tries to fix things, it’s Sutton with his police-issue Glock who produces a solution.

I wasn’t really taken with this, but it’s clearly a popular favorite.

Three stars.

Review of Warming Season by S.R. Algernon

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The description of this novel says it’s based in the universe of Algernon’s short stories “In Cygnus and in Hell” and “Home Cygnus,” both published in Nature magazine. It’s billed as Cygnus Book I, so I expect we’ll see additions to the series. For anyone who doesn’t recall, Algernon was nominated for a Hugo Award in 2016 for the short story “Asymmetrical Warfare.” This novel was published in January 2020 and runs 438 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Cygnus is a moon of the planet 16 Cygni Bb, which has been settled by a group of colonists who arrived on the colony ship Xi-Zhong. Three-hundred and sixty-five years after the founding, the colony is dominated by the Cygnus Power Corporation, and stagnation and corruption have set in. The moon has a harsh climate, and even after efforts at terraforming, temperatures in winter and summer are extreme, so colonists struggle to make a living. At the end of the cold season, a man is found dead in an alleyway, and Silver Falls Liaison Officer Deepankar Varanasi begins an investigation. The man has invented a prototype that will transform power generation, and a group of rebels aims to capture the prototype and launch a take-over of the entire colony. Cygnus Power moves to protect their interests and maintain the status quo. As the confrontation develops, it looks like they’re headed for total warfare. As Liaison, can Dee do anything to save the colony?

This is a slow burner, an absorbing story with strong, well-developed characters and a complex plot. The world is imagined in fair detail, including the environment, the government, the religious observances, and Dee’s circle of family, friends and acquaintances. This isn’t really about the technology, so the prototype’s function isn’t explained, but in general, the level of tech seem reasonable. We get a brief glimpse of a colony off-shoot with a different approach to adaptation. From a slow burn at the beginning, this progresses toward a train wreck of epic proportions.

On the not-so positive side, I had a little trouble defining Dee’s role and following his responses as the crisis develops. He seems to be an appointed official with self-esteem issues who attends children’s pageants and speaks at commemoration parades, and I would expect this kind of officer to have a security squad to handle things for him. Instead, Dee tries to operate as a one-man police force, investigating crimes and confronting revolutionaries himself. When things go wrong, he has no clear plan. His hands-on approach adds to the adventure quality of the story, but it’s hard to support in realistic terms.

It’s an interesting beginning to a series and I have to appreciate the space colony setting and the projection into a possible future. We’ll have to wait to see how things resolve.

Four stars.

Congrats to the 2019 Nebula Finalists!

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The SFWA has released the finalist for the 2019 Nebula. I’ll start reading for reviews PDQ.

Novel

Marque of Caine, Charles E. Gannon (Baen)

The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E. Harrow (Redhook; Orbit UK)

A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine (Tor)

Gods of Jade and Shadow, Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Del Rey; Jo Fletcher)

Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir (Tor.com Publishing)

A Song for a New Day, Sarah Pinsker (Berkley)

Novella

“Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom”, Ted Chiang (Exhalation)

The Haunting of Tram Car 015, P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing)

This Is How You Lose the Time War, Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone (Saga)

Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water, Vylar Kaftan (Tor.com Publishing)

The Deep, Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes (Saga)

Catfish Lullaby, A.C. Wise (Broken Eye)

Novelette

“A Strange Uncertain Light”, G.V. Anderson (F&SF 7-8/19)

“For He Can Creep”, Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com 7/10/19)

“His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light”, Mimi Mondal (Tor.com 1/23/19)

“The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye”, Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny 7-8/19)

Carpe Glitter, Cat Rambo (Meerkat)

“The Archronology of Love”, Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed 4/19)

Short Story

“Give the Family My Love”, A.T. Greenblatt (Clarkesworld 2/19)

“The Dead, In Their Uncontrollable Power”, Karen Osborne (Uncanny 3-4/19)

“And Now His Lordship Is Laughing”, Shiv Ramdas (Strange Horizons 9/9/19)

“Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island”, Nibedita Sen (Nightmare 5/19)

“A Catalog of Storms”, Fran Wilde (Uncanny 1-2/19)

“How the Trick Is Done”, A.C. Wise (Uncanny 7-8/19)

The Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Young Adult Science Fiction or Fantasy Book

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, Carlos Hernandez (Disney Hyperion)

Catfishing on CatNet, Naomi Kritzer (Tor Teen)

Dragon Pearl, Yoon Ha Lee (Disney Hyperion)

Peasprout Chen: Battle of Champions, Henry Lien (Holt)

Cog, Greg van Eekhout (Harper)

Riverland, Fran Wilde (Amulet)

Game Writing

Outer Wilds, Kelsey Beachum (Mobius Digital)

The Outer Worlds, Leonard Boyarsky, Megan Starks, Kate Dollarhyde, Chris L’Etoile (Obsidian Entertainment)

The Magician’s Workshop, Kate Heartfield (Choice of Games)

Disco Elysium, Robert Kurvitz (ZA/UM)

Fate Accessibility Toolkit, Elsa Sjunneson-Henry (Evil Hat Productions)

The Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation

Avengers: Endgame, Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (Marvel Studios)

Captain Marvel, Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck & Geneva Robertson-Dworet (Marvel Studios)

Good Omens: “Hard Times”, Neil Gaiman (Amazon Studios/BBC Studios)

The Mandalorian: “The Child”, Jon Favreau (Disney+)

Russian Doll: “The Way Out”, Allison Silverman and Leslye Headland (Netflix)

Watchmen: “A God Walks into Abar”, Jeff Jensen & Damon Lindelof (HBO)

Not Latina enough: Is the requirement for #OwnVoices changing?

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Referring to my last blog: That is such a troubling statement about Latina heritage on File 770 that I think it needs another look. For anyone interested, here’s the full quote: “Macmillan f’ing up by publishing American Dirt, a novel rife with negative Mexican crime and drug stereotypes (which was written by a white American woman who says she has “Latina” heritage because she has a Puerto Rican grandmother), but not publishing books by actual Latinos.”

You’d think Cummins would be the new face of multiculturism: she’s of Irish and Latin American decent, was born in Spain and lives and works in the US. However, this particular File 770 poster says the publisher f’ed up because they published her, but not actual Latinos, indicating that Cummins has, instead, lost her claim on Latin heritage. One might consider this contradiction a mental glitch, but seeing that the perception is widely shared, I have to assume it really is an expression of the current climate surrounding #OwnVoices writing—the “current climate” does seem to be something the File 770 regulars are on top of. Apparently Cummins, at 1/4 Puerto Rican, isn’t considered Latina enough to have written this book, or even to qualify for minority status in Macmillan’s stable of writers.

So, there are a few conclusions that I can draw from this situation. First, Cummins, secure in her belief she is Latina, and her publisher Macmillan, apparently never thought about being challenged on this book. Next, you’re not a Latina, African American, Native American, disabled, LGBTQ, or anything-else writer, unless you’re out; plus, coming out after you’ve been Twitter mobbed won’t help your case with the mob. And last, the requirements for #OwnVoices writing may have actually tightened so that 1) descendants of first generation ethnic minorities may no longer count, especially if they don’t retain ethnic names 2) an ethnic minority can only write within the narrow limits of their own background and/or 3) an ethnic minority can’t be successful enough to get a seven-figure advance.

These possibilities have repercussions, of course. Should minority writers now consider whether they’re “brown enough” to write something ethnic? Specifically, can only Mexican Latinas now write about Mexico? Cummins isn’t the only minority to fall into this trap recently. About the same time as this controversy, Isabel Fall withdrew her publication at Clarkesworld because of similar criticism. Certainly Fall never questioned her own credentials to write the story, but should her trans status have been publicized in advance to head off criticism? Does the response to both Fall’s story and Cummins’ novel suggest that authors need to publish any minority status they might qualify for on their books/websites/blogs?

This has been a growing trend, of course, but is it now required? Or is that obligation actually an invasion of privacy? Should writers be required to put their ethnic heritage, their gender identity, their age or their medical status out there for a discussion about whether they’re qualified to write their particular story? Should publishers request proof of minority status before going to press so they can post it and head off criticism? And last, is this minority status automatically cancelled when a writer becomes financially successful?

Since Cummins is judged not-Latina-enough to write about a Mexican Latina character, maybe we should now have another look at who’s publishing as an #OwnVoices minority. For example, should we question Native American writer Stephen Graham Jones, who grew up in Texas and has a white name? Or Rebecca Roanhorse, who claims African and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo heritage but writes about Navajo characters? Should we maybe question the light-skinned Nisi Shawl about her qualifications to represent the black experience?

And last, that question about financial success is still hanging there. Cummins has obviously hit the mainstream taste with this novel. It is sitting pretty securely atop the New York Times Bestseller List. So, why doesn’t the Latinx writing community support her?

Latina or white? Jeanine Cummins and American Dirt

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This is another case of author bullying. I’m running a little late on it, but after a recent comment on File 770 that someone with a Puerto Rican grandmother isn’t a real Latina, I’m going to check in. I would have questioned the comment on File 770, but I’ve been censored by Mike Glyer again. Presumably this means he supports the statement and doesn’t want it challenged.

The controversy is about the novel American Dirt, written by Jeanine Cummins. This is what Oprah Winfrey called a “heart-wrenching” novel about a Mexican family’s efforts to escape from a drug cartel and cross the US border. The novel was recommended by Oprah for her book club and then promptly met by trashing on social media as “brownface” and cultural appropriation by a “white” woman. Cummins revelation that her grandmother was Latina did nothing to stop the furor. This generates some interesting questions. First, what is the definition of Latina? Second, why is someone ¼ Puerto Rican identifying as white? And last, is the issue of #OwnVoices and/or cultural appropriation valid in this case?

First, the definition of Latina: Jim Crow laws would define anyone with a drop of Latin blood as Latina, but these laws are now (supposedly) defunct. However, Native Americans currently use a definition called blood quantum to assess eligibility for tribal membership. According to this principle, someone with ¼ ancestry is considered fairly close, and therefore would be eligible for membership in all but the pickiest tribes. So, a similar analysis suggests that having a Puerto Rican grandmother should definitely qualify Cummins as Latina.

Okay next, why hasn’t she been embracing her heritage and marketing herself as a Latina writer? Research suggests that certain ethnic groups embrace separatism and victim politics, while others opt to work within the system as it is. The US has a long history of immigrants that assimilate into the “white” race. This is, of course, easier for more-or-less light-skinned European types. Although Italian, Jewish and Irish immigrants faced initial racism, they fairly quickly assimilated into the white structure of the US. Trying to force other groups to assimilate (i.e. Native Americans) gave the process a bad name in the 19th century, but this remains a highly successful method of “becoming white.” US residents have a very flexible attitude toward culture and skin tone, and as it turns out, Latin immigrants expect to become white within two to three generations. According to Pew, about half of US Hispanic/LatinX residents mark the “white” box, stepping up to assume white privilege. Plus, the number changing their response from LatinX to white has been increasing lately, presumably as the benefits of minority status drop off and family affluence increases. So, does her identification as white erase Cummins’ Latina ancestry? How do you erase something like that, anyway?

And last, is this a case of “brownface” and/or cultural appropriation? One of the problems with knee-jerk, mob-action bullying campaigns is that they don’t investigate the facts before exploding on social media. Presumably Cummins feels a real connection to the Latin immigrant story, or she wouldn’t have felt compelled to write a heart-wrenching novel about the issue. Everyone might have considered shutting up and apologizing when she announced her Latina heritage, but instead they opted to double down and disparage her credentials as a real Latina. Cultural appropriation? Well okay, maybe, because her heritage isn’t Mexican, but you could easily make a case that being Latina is qualification enough; discuss the crime and drug trafficking problem in Puerto Rico, and count the number of Puerto Ricans that migrated to the mainland US after the last weather and corruption disaster. How closely are we going to split hairs on this issue?

Review of Snapshot by Brandon Sanderson

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This is a futuristic detective novella published in 2017 through Sanderson’s imprint Dragonsteel Entertainment. It runs 98 pages, and the film rights have been optioned by MGM. This review contains spoilers.

Anthony Davis and his partner Chaz are police detectives assigned to the Snapshot project. This is a technology that can recreate a city of 20 million for a single day as a resource for police investigations. Davis thinks the two of them have been taken off regular duty for this because of deficiencies—Chaz is rated too aggressive, and Davis isn’t aggressive enough. The two of them have been sent to investigate a crime that took place 10 days ago. They successfully locate a murder weapon, and then they have to wait for evening for their next assignment, a domestic dispute. Davis visits his son Hal, successfully avoiding his ex-wife, but then the two detectives get sidetracked when they run across evidence of a mass murderer, The Photographer. Headquarters orders them not to get involved, but feeling a sense of duty, they cautiously start an investigation. None of the people in the city are real so they can’t be really killed—except Davis and Chaz. Anything they do in the city causes deviations from reality. Is what they’re doing putting them at risk?

This is an entertaining read. It sets up the situation and some guys with problems and lets it play out. As usual with Sanderson’s work, it’s strongly plotted, with complexities and a sudden twist at the end that I wasn’t expecting. There’s an emotional component when Davis sneaks in the visit with his son, followed by later issues with his ex. The eventual face-to-face with The Photographer strongly suggests this might be a Snapshot of a Shapshot, in other words, an investigation of crimes committed within a previous Shapshot of the city.

The fact that both men have been taken off regular duty because of aggression issues mirrors a more developed discussion of this in Sanderson’s recent Skyward series. The repetition suggests it might be a recurring theme in his work, but there’s no real discussion of it here—Sanderson only presents the contrast, and maybe the difficulty of getting something like this right as an officer of the law.

On the not so positive side, I thought the sudden twist wasn’t that well supported by what had gone on before. It was foreshadowed some by The Photographer, but the conflict we saw didn’t quite build up enough motivation for the main characters. This could have also tied in better with the theme of aggression. What the mass murderer was doing didn’t quite make good sense, either. Still, these issues don’t detract from a good story.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Obsolescence” by Martha Wells

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This short story is based in the Murderbot universe, and appears in the anthology Take Us to a Better Place, released by Melcher Media on January 21, 2020. This review contains spoilers.

Jixy is an administrator at Kidland Station, somewhere in space. She is first alerted to a problem by screaming children, and finds, to her horror, that Greggy seems to have had a terrible accident. It’s a messy cleanup job, and worse, it looks like some of his components have been stolen. Greggy was a retired exploration rover, an early version of a human-machine construct, who was working at Kidland Station in a second career as a teaching assistant. Suspecting that Greggy might have been attacked by an unauthorized visitor, Jixy puts the station in emergency mode and orders a search of the module. It’s a scary situation, as everybody remembers stories of raiders that attack people to steal their prostheses and augments. Can Jixy find whoever is responsible before they strike again?

On the positive side, this story follows up on information we’ve gotten from Wells’ Murderbot Diaries series. One reason that Murderbot tries so hard to blend in with the human population is that it’s concerned about being identified as a rogue construct without any rights, which would be fair game for a chop shop gang. Murderbot also mentions the exploration rovers as an early example of human-bot constructs. Generally these were people who had suffered some highly debilitating accident and were offered the chance for reconstruction to help establish the first bases on Luna and Mars.

On the not so positive side, this suffers greatly from lack of Murderbot. Without its wry observances, the story fails to generate anything much in the way of interest. The vision of Greggy floating in his own remains is somewhat horrific, as is the perpetrator, but otherwise, I’m not sure of the point here. That transhumans will get obsolete the way an old car does? Well okay, maybe so. It’s a bit short on details, too.

Three stars.

Review of Infinite Lives: Short Tales of Longevity, edited by Juliana Rew

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This anthology is #26 in the series, issued in October of 2019, a collection of speculative fiction short stories related in some way to long life or immortality. It’s edited by Juliana Rew and is offered as both an e-book and a paperback. There are 28 stories that range across genres, and the book includes some short humor pieces at the end. This review may contain spoilers.

Third Flatiron Anthologies is now pretty well-established as a source for solid, well-written stories, without the heavy political messages that sometimes turn up in SFF works. I’d love to mention all the stories but I don’t have the space here. The selections include “Tunnels” by Brian Trent about a long-lived man looking for the woman of his dreams; “A Billion Bodies More” by Sloan Leong where a woman dies a million deaths; “At the Precipice of Eternity” by Ingrid Garcia about an alien nano-swarm that communicates with a Madrid-based scientist; “Abe in Yosemite” by Robert Walton where Abe Lincoln and John Muir have a conversation about that event at the theater; “Cold Iron” by Wulf Moon about a Spaniard and an Indio woman trying to lay the Conquistador Pizzaro to a final rest; and “Find Her” by Konstantine Paradias, where an angel and a demon fight one another through eternity. The short humor pieces provide a laugh at the end, including letters to an Airbnb host and a listing of “best-selling” items from (ghost story writer) M.R. James’ collectibles catalog.

These offerings follow that standard, including everything from hard SF to out-and-out mythology. The cast of writers is diverse and international. Authors include: Brian Trent, Sloane Leong, Matt Thompson, J. B. Toner, Larry C. Kay, David F. Schultz, D. A. Campisi, Russell Dorn, Samson Stormcrow Hayes, Ingrid Garcia, Maureen Bowden, Brandon Butler, Caias Ward, Leah Miller, Megan Branning, Robert Walton, K. G. Anderson, Louis Evans, John Paul Davies, David Cleden, Tom Pappalardo, Philip John Schweitzer, Martin M. Clark, Wulf Moon, Mack Moyer, Konstantine Paradias, E. E. King, and Sarah Totton.

Four stars.

Review of Made Things by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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This novella is a sequel to Tchaikovsky’s novelette Precious Little Things. It was released by Tor.com in November 2019, and runs 192 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Coppelia lives in the Fountains Parish barrio of the city of Loretz, where she works as a puppeteer, con-artist and thief. She tries hard to stay clear of the Broadcaps police, who have been after her since she escaped from the orphanage. Coppelia has some unusual friends that help her in her work, tiny manikins originally created by the mage Arcantel. They don’t entirely trust her, but they have established a good working relationship and she helps them by using her small magical ability to carve bodies that they can animate to make more of their kind. Coppelia is getting along fairly well with this state of affairs, but then she captures the attention of the local crime lord, who sends her with a crew to rob the Mages’ palace. The plan goes wrong fairly quickly, and they encounter the powerful, life-sized, manikin Archmagister in the palace. Can Coppelis engineer some way escape with her life?

This is a quick, easy read, fairly upbeat and entertaining. The characterizations here are attractive and the manikins very strange and magical. Tchaikovsky sketches in a believable world with its hierarchies of power, and gives us the view from the bottom where Coppelia struggles along in the shadow of the crime lords and city mages, where wealth buys magic and magic buys wealth. The story is fairly whimsical, but it’s not all sugar and spice. People do get killed as the stakes get more desperate. There’s a slightly ironic touch in the dealings of the nobles.

On the not so positive side, this comes across like a children’s tale, while, as an adult, I would have preferred darker and more serious themes. Conflict is actually low, and Coppelia never has to make any really difficult choices. She is supposed to be struggling along through this world, driven by others with more power, but somehow the situation never feels really desperate. People seem to pick her up as a protégé, offering advantages, and with all the support she has, I never felt she was truly at risk. The power structure is sketched in, but this is just observations, and we don’t get into the fine points of how power can be employed for both good and evil purposes.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Precious Little Things” by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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This novelette is prequel to Tchaikovsky’s Made Things. It was released by Tor Books in November of 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Tam is a rough-cut homunculus, a common laborer, but he has ambitions for the daughter he is working on. He climbs the shelves to ask the Folded Ones of the Tower for gold to add to her form, so she will have greater rank and opportunity. They agree, but only if he will give them his daughter after her birth. Liat is successfully born at the feet of the Maker Arcantel, the great frozen mage in the center of the Tower, and afterward Tam sends her to study with the Ones of the Shelf so she becomes a mage herself. The tribes of the Tower have been getting bolder, and in recent years, raven riders have gone forth from the windows, so they know something of the world outside. One of the riders brings a report of three giants like the Maker Arcantel arriving at the door of the Tower. Liat is elected to go and see what they want, and is transported outside by one of the raven riders. The giants seem to have only rough magic, but Liat realizes they will eventually breach the Tower. She needs to make a decision about their intentions. Will they welcome knowledge that the homunculi exist, or will they only destroy the tribes and loot the Tower? What should Liat recommend?

This is an entertaining little story with the feel of young adult. The characters seem very real, and the world takes shape as the story moves along. We see the Tower from the eyes of tiny dolls made of paper, wood, metal and bone, as they work at their goal to reproduce and create more of their kind. We gather the mage Arcantel is frozen in the working of some arcane spell, and the tiny creatures are most likely an unexpected side-effect. That doesn’t matter to them, of course. They’re taking the world as they find it. There’s a serious discussion of poverty versus wealth at the end of this that emerges as the main theme.

There are only a couple of negatives I can see here: The first is that the story is too short to really develop this into a serious drama, and the second is that we’ve just left Arcantel stuck there in the Tower with only the accidental little homunculi to defend him. Maybe these manikins are too limited to have full lives, but since there’s already a sequel, it looks like Tchaikovsky means to keep writing stories about them.

This is a very intriguing story, a great lead in to a possible future novel.

Four stars.

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